A Quality of Life Issue

By Richard Lamm
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 6, Number 4 (Summer 1996)
Issue theme: "The battle for official English"

A new and controversial public policy question is rapidly emerging in U.S. politics how large a country do we want the United States to be? How many people do we want in California, Colorado, or Vermont? The "growth" issue, which hit California decades ago, is now one of the top three issues in most of the United States. People look at today's sprawl, traffic jams and disappearing amenities and grieve over the rapidly diminishing quality of life.

For the first time in America, many people are asking what is our demographic destiny? How many people can live a quality life in Colorado, California, or the United States? The nation is slowly recognizing that, bottom line, this is a question of immigration. American woman are averaging 2.1 children in their lifetime, a number that will stabilize the U.S. population by the year 2040 at about 305 million Americans. Whether America stabilizes its population or doubles its size depends on what we do about immigration.

I moved to San Francisco in 1957 when there were about 10 million Californians. California was a paradise. There are now 32 million people and, largely because of immigration, you will have about 50 million people by the year 2010. I have yet to meet a Californian who wants 50 million neighbors. Colorado has 3.3 million people, and is heading to 5 million. Few Coloradans want to increase our population at all. Yet, our destinies are interrelated. Polls tell us that 400,000 Californians have left the state since 1990, mainly because they feel their quality of life has diminished. Shouldn't that be a warning to us all?

Ultimately, the growth issue is an immigration issue. If the United States doubles its population, does anyone doubt that Colorado, California, Vermont, North Carolina, etc. will not at least double their population? We cannot have a livable state or nation without controlling immigration.

The first U.S. Census in 1790 found 4 million Americans. This means we have had six doublings in our 200 year history (8,16,32, 64, 128, 256). Just one more doubling gives us 500 million Americans. Two more doublings gives us about as many people as currently live in China or India. Our own birth rate will stabilize the U.S. population; immigration will cause it to double. Which of these do we want for our grandchildren?

"We have a desperate need to find jobs for our own underclass." There is a powerful, non-xenophobic case to close down the "age of immigration." Immi-gration made sense when we were an empty continent with an agricultural economy. But, today, we are a cash/wage society that requires tens of thousands of dollars to create a job. We have a desperate need to find jobs for our own underclass. As conditions change, so should our policy change. America must go back to the bedrock of immi-gration policy and ask what are the public policy reasons for immigration. Ask yourself

* Do we really want an America of 500 million people? A California of 50 million people? Immigration will decide whether we stabilize or whe-ther we continue to grow.

* Do we have insufficient labor to run our economy? Does California need more unskilled labor? If both parties now agree that we must "end welfare as we know it," where are we going to get the jobs to start welfare recipients up the economic ladder?

* Does immigration help us to develop a more fair, egalitarian society? Does it advance the interests of America's minorities?

The answers to these questions are crucial to the immigration debate. Our society must look at the long term domestic impacts of immigration and answer the public's hard questions. It is not enough to answer in slogans.

Twenty-five years ago, a presidential commission spent a lot of time and money looking at reasons for population growth. The Commission on Population Growth and the American Future reported

We have looked for, and have not found, any continuing economic argument for continued population growth. The health of our country does not depend on it, nor does the vitality of business nor the welfare of the average person."

Since that time, we have added 60 million new Americans, and California has doubled its population.

Inquiring minds want to know why? Who benefits? Who loses? Will immigration leave a better place for our grand-children to grow up?

These questions will not go away. □

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